Protocols of the Elders of Chelm
Try as it might, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had never captured all the mysteries of the Kingdom of God into any manual. Almost two hundred years after Joseph Smith’s First Vision, it was still left to brothers and sisters in the faith to puzzle out a few things on their own. This was according to a principle, older than the foundations of the world, that some experiences cannot be scheduled. They emerge of their own accord along the borders of time: in the hour when the last candle burns down after a shared meal, or in the weeks of the year when darkness rolls in like a tide, or in the moments when the Sunday crowd thins as the meetinghouse empties. In times like these, it’s possible to find truths that no classroom can offer, insights limited by divine decree to the foyers of this world. Now and then, the wise men and women of Chelm would accidentally form a quorum to uncover one of these deeper mysteries.
One Sunday, for example, in the exact moment when the stragglers after meetings can transform into lingerers, Belka Fischer happened to be conversing with Menachem Menasche about the angels. She had noticed, she told him, that early in human history, angels who visited earth never shared their names. Look at the stories of Adam and Eve, or Abraham and Sarah: angels came by, asked some questions, maybe had a bite to eat, and wandered off. But by the New Testament, things had changed. When angels appeared, it was a big production. They came in choirs, waited in legions, and used fancy code names like Gabriel and Michael. Also, they cut down on the chit-chat: they’d just announce and ascend. Only the risen Jesus seemed to take time for a bit of honey or a bite of fish. And by the last dispensation? The parade of angels who visited Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—Moroni, John, Peter, Elijah—might as well have been wearing little black missionary name tags. They were touchy, always shaking hands or laying them on heads. But not once did the scriptures mention anyone so much as offering them a snack!
“Why all the differences?” Belka asked. “Is there a plan and meaning to all of this?”
Menachem considered the question thoughtfully. Zalman the Learned, listening in, began to leaf through his scriptures. Zelda Gottstein looked up from her place on the foyer’s couch to watch, and Lazar the Blind Beggar’s ears perked up. Across the room, Belka’s husband, Yossel, was arguing with Brother Cohen again about the duties of the Aaronic Priesthood, but even they felt something shift as the reasoning began.
“Perhaps,” Menachem offered, “the culture in heaven goes through phases and fads, just like the cultures on earth. After all, even the Lord says Behold, I will do a new thing. If the Master of the Universe likes to mix things up, why shouldn’t his servants improvise a little?”
At the mention of change in heaven, Aaron Cohen felt an immediate sense of unease, which manifested as disgust. But his disgust was not without a curiosity. He sent Yossel searching for an obscure scripture reference, and took advantage of the pause in their debate to turn toward Menachem and open a second front in his weekly war for truth. “Do you think heaven is yogurt, that it should have culture?” he asked. “When it comes to God, there’s no culture. There’s no change. There’s a wrong way and a right way. As it is written: my ways are higher than your ways. Human ways are wrong and God’s way is right. It’s not rocket science. If it were, it would be wrong, because science is human. It’s simple as that.”
“Except that the scripture says my ways,” Belka pointed out. “The trouble with God is that he has so many. And of course he doesn’t change: why should he have to? His heart is wide enough to be joyful and angry and sad at the same time. I’m sure it makes him a great deity, but it also makes him hard to understand. Which is why I wasn’t asking about God in the first place, but about the angels.”
“Oh, so you want to put space between God and his angels? Between the angels and the prophets? Between the prophets and the people? So the whole of existence is like a giant game of telephone where the messages get garbled in transmission and we laugh like children at what comes down the line?”
Belka nodded. To her, that sounded exactly right. “The angels have obviously changed. I just want to know why. Are they having stomach problems? Were some of them translated incorrectly?”
In Aaron Cohen’s forehead, a vein began to bulge. But Zalman the Learned waved a hand. “I think I have a solution that will reconcile everything,” he said. “When in heaven, God and his angels are perfect and unchanging,” he began, looking to Brother Cohen. “But we’re not in heaven,” he added, turning to Belka. Zalman opened his scriptures and pointed to a verse. “It’s written right here: there is a time to every purpose under heaven. Weren’t the angels somewhere under heaven for all those visits? So, apparently, for an angel coming to earth, there’s a time to say your name, a time to talk about babies, and a time to shut up and eat.”
Lazar the Blind Beggar was the next to speak up. “Thank you for solving that mystery for me,” he said. “I understand what you mean about one way of doing things in heaven and another on earth. I myself am more comfortable at home than when I come down here.” Then he paused, and leaned forward on his cane thoughtfully. “But it seems to me that angels would take certain attributes with them across space and time. It’s one thing to eat a meal or skip a meal, after all, and quite another . . .” He paused again, as if considering a crossroads. “Well, with such wisdom here, I might as well ask it . . . what I mean is: in heaven, are the angels circumcised?”
At that question, all the wise men and women fell quiet for a moment. Though it would seem that the scriptures would provide a clear answer to such a basic inquiry, directness was seldom their way. God often spoke such that his servants, as he explained in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, would need to come to understanding. Like sheep who move toward the shepherd’s voice, or a cat who learns to recognize the sound of a can opener. So approach they did, each in his or her own way.
Zalman the Learned found his voice first to note that it was obviously written: Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And, in another place, Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto his word. “If they do the commandments,” he concluded, “it follows that male angels must be circumcised.”
But Menachem Menasche observed that a different argument could be made. Didn’t the New Testament say, speaking of the resurrection, but there shall not an hair of your head perish? If the hair—which was not a part of the body but an extension made of dead cells—was to be restored, then surely the foreskin, which was flesh and blood, would be restored as well. “On this question,” he told them, “the Book of Mormon is even more explicit: every thing shall be restored. It follows that circumcision is an earthly commandment, but one without force on a risen body.”
To this, of course, Aaron Cohen objected—so fiercely that he had to give up on his side debate with Yossel to focus on the foreskin issue. “Stop your sophistry this instant!” he thundered. “It is written: My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. Not a transitory or a changing covenant,” he emphasized, wagging a solemn finger in Menachem and Belka’s direction, “but an everlasting one. Therefore: those who serve God from everlasting to everlasting must always carry the sign. That’s the rule. No exceptions.”
Zelda snorted loudly from the couch, but didn’t immediately point out the oversights she saw in his argument.
“Maybe these contradictions can be resolved, too,” Belka offered. “After all, isn’t the resurrection a kind of rebirth? And don’t boy babies all have foreskins?” She looked around the foyer, but no one else seemed to be reaching the obvious conclusion. “I doubt there’s money in heaven to collect on any bets,” she continued, “but I’ll still wager that male angels will be circumcised again eight days after they rise from the dead.” She paused, brow wrinkling as she considered her position in light of Paul’s letters. “But possibly only if they’re Jewish,” she added.
That raised more questions. Menachem Menashe asked whether there would still be Gentiles and Jews after the resurrection. Zalman the Learned blurted out a question about whether angels also underwent some sort of heart operation to make literal the kind of circumcision so often alluded to in scripture. Yossel asked whether there would be mohels in heaven to perform all these circumcisions—and if that meant other angels had jobs.
“So much fuss over a nothing of a question,” Zelda said at last. “We’ve been taught that angels are just righteous people who are resurrected, right? Well, that tells you enough not to worry about this circumcision question. Righteous? Reasonable? Ever willing to serve? I’ve known enough men that I doubt it comes up much.”
At that, Belka nodded. Yossel shrugged. Still, the discussion about angels got him thinking. It occurred to him that he didn’t know much about how the next life works. It was easy to say that this life was just a moment in the great sea of eternity, but what was the sailing out there going to be like? The scriptures would say one thing here, and another there. It could leave a person with a lot of anxiety.
To start, he asked about the worst. If there was no hell but outer darkness, why did the scriptures keep mentioning fire and brimstone? “That one is simple,” Menachem Mensashe said. Guiding Yossel into Doctrine and Covenants 19, he showed that references to eternal punishment meant that the punishment came at the hands of the Eternal One—not that it would last forever. Any misunderstanding, Menachem noted, was the product of the divine dance with the limitations of the human mind: the Lord often let us assume one thing while he was technically telling us something completely different. “God cannot lie,” Menachem explained. “But he does equivocate. Talking to us, he pretty much has to.” Fair enough, said Yossel. But what about families being together forever? He understood, in principle, that his children would always be his. But would little Breyndl want tucking in at night? Would Golda still roll her eyes at half the things he said? Perhaps most to the point: as they learned the nature of godhood, what obligation would he have to help with their homework?
Zalman the Learned scratched his head. “God help us,” he said, “but the scriptures say that the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there.”
Zelda leaned back into the couch’s worn back. “Ah, but what is more constant in our relationships here,” she said, “than change?”
That made sense, Yossel acknowledged. But he still struggled to understand the logistics of it all. Wasn’t it written: in my Father’s house are many mansions. What if, on Passover, his children came to visit him at the same time that he went to visit his parents, which might be the same time that they went to visit their parents, and so on? “At whose mansion would we host the seder?” he asked, thinking of the dishes to be done afterward. “It probably won’t be in any house at all,” Belka said, “but on a maze of tables running down heaven’s streets.” After all, why else would the Saints spend so much time on earth putting up and taking down tables and chairs?
Alternatively, Zalman the Learned proposed, families in heaven might use technology for shared experiences. “The only object mentioned in the scriptures as a personal possession we’ll have,” he said, “is a white stone we can use as a Urim and Thummim.” Invoking some exalted equivalent to a video conference, he argued that a web of family relationships could be tended in such a way from the present generation all the way back to the patriarchs. “Don’t the scriptures say quite clearly that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham?”
“What about government?” Yossel asked at last. “After Jesus comes again, and the earth is all paradisiacal, will someone still be in charge of collecting the trash?” “Now that’s theology,” Zelda said. “I’ll bet it’s what Jesus’ apostles were arguing about when they wanted to know which of them in the kingdom of heaven was the greatest.”
Menachem Menasche thought she had a point. “We might rotate days,” he speculated, “or call down fire from heaven to incinerate our garbage. But when they sit on twelves thrones as judges representing the twelve tribes, the apostles will at least be able to settle such questions.” Zalman had to agree. “It’s the simple truths that matter. Leave it to heaven’s lawyers to work out the millennium’s constitution. For now, the only thing we know about the world government in the Messianic age is that it will be run by Jews,” he said. “And it’s a sure sign to recognize the wicked when you find out that’s what they’re afraid of.” Well—with that great mystery resolved, what else was there to say? The elders grabbed their coats and made their way home to their ordinary lives. And so it is that these protocols of the elders of Chelm come to an end.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.